Robertson Park Artists’ Studio is the name of a group of artists who occupy a modern, stylish building in the middle of Robertson park, in north Perth. The studio occupies Halvorsen Hall, a building that had once housed the Perth City Band. The Band has since moved on and been rehoused. The main room of Halvorsen Hall is large and light-filled. Four artists work in this main room, Frances Dennis, Graham Hay, Carol Rowling and Sarah Jane Marchant. There’s also another space to the side where Janet Pfeiffer has a studio space.
I visited the studio on a Thursday afternoon in March and felt immediately welcomed into the space. The group has worked together for nearly fifteen years, with some members joining later than others. Janet Pfeiffer, for instance, is the most recent member. The original band of artists had developed out of an earlier studio, The Wellman Street group, which was established in 1992 by a collective of then recent graduate artists.
The space is open and social, and all the artists that I talked with spoke about how important working in such an open and social space was to their practice. They liked working together and often discussed their work and thoughts, giving feedback and critique, advice and support to each other. The atmosphere was warm and relaxed. Although, like most artist-run initiatives today, all of the artists follow their own muses and passions rather than pursue any single style or aesthetic intention. In other words all of the artists have their own directions and ideas. And yet there is a real sense of shared purpose along with a strong sense of belonging and caring – it felt like a way of life, rather than a transient moment.
The idea of artists sharing studio space and creating a community of like-minded people has a long history in the modern era. From the very beginning of modernity artists began working together and forming communities. For instance, one of the earliest of these was the Barbizon School of painters, active between 1830-1870, who painted in and around the forests of Fontainebleau, outside Paris. This is only one of many communities of artists across Europe, especially in France, Germany and Scandinavia that Michael Jacobs writes about in The Good and Simple Life: artist colonies in Europe and America. There were also artist’s communities in Australia of course, with the Heidelberg School of painters being the most prominent. These artist communities were later named and organised as particular “schools”, ordered together into neat taxonomies of style and given their place within the canon of art history. Yet, if looked at not through the lens of art history’s style narrative, one can see another narrative, and that is from the point of view of artists and their needs. Gathering together into communities, working together, sharing ideas and supporting each other makes a lot of sense for artists. And with this sort of coming together, painting styles emerged out of these shared communities. This was especially so at the beginning of modernity with the enormous changes brought about by industrialisation, colonial expansion and scientific discoveries. But it is also still relevant today, and this is borne out through the many artist-run initiatives that proliferate around Australia and internationally.
Artist-run initiatives, the term captured and snared by bureaucracy in the late 1990s to pinpoint funding objectives, is also a term that artists all over Australia have taken and re-shaped back into service for artists themselves. It’s important to remember that the term was initially used by artists. Amy Griffiths in her comprehensive and impressive thesis “From Then to Now: Artist Run Initiatives in Sydney, NSW” writes that the first documented use of the term ARI was recorded in a 1998-1999 Australia Council for the Arts Annual Report, she goes on, “the term was in use by the artists and cultural practitioners internally engaging with these spaces and culture around a decade earlier. In 1989, Artspace, Sydney, held a forum and exhibition of works by artists who showed at Artist Run Initiatives titled Endangered Spaces: Artist Run Initiatives in New South Wales.” (p.30) Robertson Park Artist Studio expands any narrow idea of the artist-run and brings it back to a good working model of what an “independent, self funded, non-profit arts studio collectively run by all artists” could mean.
Graham Hay, one of the original members of the group, is a sculptor working mainly with ceramic paper clay. He has a deep interest in the social organisation of society in general, and in particular the social organisation of the arts and crafts. Over the last twenty years he has been inspired by theories of non-organisational social networks. His work, The Kiss was recently selected for Sculpture by the Sea, Perth. (see more about this below.)
Carol Rowling is a painter whose paintings are built up with layers of mixed media and inspired by the remote and urban Australian landscape. She also spends a lot of time in the air, travelling between Perth and Sydney, and it is the view from the plane window while flying that has inspired many of her works, as she looks out, seeing the myriad patterns and shapes below.
Frances Dennis is a painter and sculptor. Her current paintings, mainly landscape paintings, are inspired by “riding thousands of kilometres on the back of a BMW motor bike all over Australia.” And you can almost feel the wind against your face as you look at the paintings, the movement of air is so palpable. “At the end of each day the thrill of the ride is remembered as an exhilarating blur of colour, light and shape.”
Sarah Jane Marchant is a painter inspired by the Australian outback, especially the Kimberley region of WA. She is drawn to the iconic Boab tree, and many of her paintings focus on the vivid colours, patterns and textures of the landscape and in particular this tree, standing strong and calm in the Kimberly landscape.
On the whole the space is used as a studio, but there are also other events and activities of significance. One important activity are the art classes that several members hold including Sarah Jane Marchant, Janet Pfeiffer and Graham Hay. For nearly twenty years Graham Hay has conducted a legendary pottery and sculpture class – even before the group occupied Halvorsen Hall. His teaching methods are generous and open, allowing students to find their own way while benefitting from his professional experience. His classes seem to inspire enormous loyalty and dedication with one ‘student’ working on one sculpture for eight to ten years. Talking to Graham, and several of the other artists in the group, it became apparent that the classes are more than instructional lessons. They are social and communal and important for the whole group as they create a wider social network of artists and others interested in art, painting and sculpture. This has then created a local social network.
The commercial art gallery sector in Perth seems to be in crisis. Several artists told me that many commercial art galleries had closed in the past five years, perhaps as many as twelve! This has meant that artists needed to create their own networks and resources and the internet in particular was proving to be very useful. I noticed that all of the Robertson Park artists have well-designed websites. It seems the internet has opened new possibilities for artists, and particularly in Perth.
During my stay Sculpture by the Sea opened at Cottesloe Beach. Graham Hay was a selected artist showing one of his extraordinary paper clay sculptures, titled The Kiss.
The Kiss consists of two large cairn-alike structures sitting side by side.The circular towers comprise hundreds, even thousands of ceramic paper clay smart phones. The Kiss was inspired by Hay’s research into clay cuneiform tablets from the Middle East, suggesting a connection between those ancient forms of everyday communication with today’s communication revolution. The Kiss also alludes to the intensely romantic and erotic Rodin sculpture from the late 19th century, a popular sculpture of two lovers holding each other in a tight embrace. In Hay’s The Kiss, the ‘lovers’ are separated, standing apart, the bodily embrace non-existent, communicating through smart phones.